By By Toni G. Atkins
The catastrophic wildfires of 2017 and 2018 were the most deadly and destructive in California history, leading to the deaths of 129 people and the destruction of entire communities. San Diego knows wildfires like these all too well.
As San Diego and all of California enter the hottest months of the year, and peak fire season, Governor Newsom and the Legislature have taken a number of important steps to help prevent those kinds of disasters from happening again.
Climate change is affecting weather patterns and extending the fire season, but there are other factors, as well. For example, the five-year statewide drought parched our chaparral, forests and other wildlands, killing more than 100 million trees and making small, rural communities, and the boundaries of larger cities a kind of dry kindling for horrific blazes.
In some cases, the ignition sources for these fires came from the vast network of electrical lines erected by private utilities — such as Pacific Gas & Electric. In addition to the tragic loss of life, the fires sparked by electrical lines caused billions of dollars in property damages and terrible losses to residents, businesses, and public agencies. These damages affect PG&E, but also Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric.
Utilities rely on their good credit to borrow and finance costs in order to invest in their infrastructure to prevent future fires, to compensate fire victims and to procure the clean energy that is the backbone of our state’s climate efforts. Without legislative action, the credit rating of the three utilities was in danger of being downgraded significantly, resulting in increased borrowing costs, possible bankruptcy, and, most importantly for the people of California, higher costs on household energy bills.
If we did not act, the economic and environmental costs to the state would be massive. Clearly, this was an unacceptable outcome for my colleagues and me in the Senate.
Working with the governor and our colleagues in the Assembly, we crafted a measure, AB 1054, that ultimately received strong support from Democrats and Republicans alike.
AB 1054 requires utilities to invest $5 billion immediately to make their infrastructure safer to prevent future fires. It creates a new independent board to oversee fire safety so that utilities put safety first. AB 1054 further requires utilities to obtain extensive safety certifications that are reviewed annually. It also establishes a catastrophic wildfire fund to help pay wildfire victims, with first priority for funding coming from the pockets of utility shareholders, who will pay billions of dollars more into this fund than utility consumers. Only if a safety certification is issued and maintained would a utility be able to participate in a fund to cover the damages from future wildfires.
The Senate fought for a number of additional provisions, including stronger utility safety requirements through field audits and annual review, which, oddly, wasn’t happening. It also took on the corporate culture of utilities by requiring strict new executive compensation requirements, including tying salaries and compensation such as bonuses to safety performance.
As with any big issue affecting our state, no single piece of legislation is perfect. However, AB 1054 is a step forward. There is more work to do. When the Legislature reconvenes on Aug. 12, wildfire preparedness — including insurance issues, additional investments in defensible space and structure protection — will be among our top priorities.
— Toni G. Atkins represents District 39 in the California Senate. Follow her on Twitter @SenToniAtkins.